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Food Biotechnology


It's a sad and serious fact. Canadian consumers know little to nothing about where their food comes from. The average supermarket shopper is influenced by packaging and pric.

It's a sad and serious fact. Canadian consumers know little to nothing about where their food
comes from. The average supermarket shopper is influenced by packaging and price. Yet modern food technology is probably the most pressing issue in the country, stretching over an increasingly broad and complex field, from seed to plate. The truth is that what's available in our food markets and ends up in our guts is controlled not by farmers, but by the powerful international chemical industry!

Elisabeth Abergel is a frequent alive biotech contributor and assistant professor of multidisciplinary studies at York University. She used to work in biotech industry laboratories and says the decision to genetically engineer food crops came from big industry, not the agricultural community. Chemical companies motivated by patented-seed profit as well as industry-funded laboratories were (and are) staffed by scientists, like herself, whose vision was restricted to the possibilities and delights of innovative gene technology. They knew nothing about farming, Abergel admits. They were not commissioned to research long-term consequences of gene manipulation, either in the environment or the diets of those throughout the food chain.

In a recent news release, Peter Melchett, policy director of the British Soil Association, said genetic engineering of grains and other seeds was introduced to North America at a time when farmers were financially vulnerable (many going into bankruptcy). They accepted industry's claims for the financial benefits of biotechnology without serious question. But Abergel defends farmers and accuses Canada's regulatory system of allowing genetically engineered (GE) seed technology to be fast-tracked without consideration for safety.

Last year she told an audience of agriculture students at the University of Regina that North American farmers were neither consulted in the GE process, nor given a choice about what they could plant (Western Producer, Oct. 31, 2002). As a consequence, they are now faced with "economic disaster."

For instance, since 1999, GE soy beans have cost the American economy $12 billion US in subsidies, loss of export to countries that will not accept them, product recalls and resulting low prices. Problems with herbicide resistance to GE crops and segregation of these crops are increasing, and those who challenge the scientific basis on which the GE crops were approved are "marginalized." (Read: charged and fined!)

Ditto for Canada!

Farmers here are held responsible for gene "escapes," even when the land is contaminated and the crops are unmarketable due to no fault of their own, as in the ongoing case of Saskatchewan grain farmer Percy Schmeiser. He was found guilty by the federal Court of Canada when his 1998 crop of canola was discovered to contain Monsanto's patented Roundup Ready. He is still fighting the charge. Ironically, Schmeiser is a hero in South America, Africa and Asia, where governments pay his travel expenses to come and speak to environmental ministers and other government leaders.

Canola is Canada's chief biotech crop. It's marketed aggressively worldwide as the "healthy Canadian oil." But in the last few years, GE canola has been an economic bust for producers. European and Asian buyers are declining it, and the oil is a highly processed product that savvy Canadian consumers are refusing to buy. The rest believe government propaganda!

Where is government accountability and consumer responsibility?

Unbiased information from independently funded scientists should be the standard for Health Canada regulations, but even though the salaries of bureaucrats in this government agency are paid with Canadian people's tax money, Health Canada officially considers industry its primary client!

I don't think so! You're the boss. Let both Health Canada and your provincial minister of agriculture know it.



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Leah PayneLeah Payne